June 2010

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Lending a hand

UGA takes its agricultural expertise to Haiti to help create a sustainable food supply

Lending a hand

Ed Kanemasu, director of global programs for UGA’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, distributes peanut butter to children on the road from Cange to Terrier Rouge.

Photo by: Brad Haire

In the shadow of a rundown block building in Los Palis, Haiti, children wearing tattered clothes bite into half-ripened mangoes they pick from the ground and wonder about the strange men toiling in the field. They don’t understand that the visitors—agricultural experts from the University of Georgia—are there to help the people of Haiti produce enough food to combat the poverty that has long crippled their Caribbean country.

In March, a team of scientists from the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences traveled to Haiti to help develop sustainable agricultural practices in the wake of a devastating earthquake that killed an estimated 200,000 people. Unlike many other relief efforts, the UGA team was there to help Haitians learn to provide for themselves.

“Our college is not really set up to do relief work per se,” says Steve Brown, CAES assistant dean for Cooperative Extension. “But we do have the expertise to help the people here develop better agricultural systems that can produce better, more nutritious food without them being dependent upon food being sent to them.”

Led by Ed Kanemasu, the CAES director of global programs, the team included Brown, CAES agronomist David Kissel, Birdsong Peanut logistics manager Sally Wells and Graham Huff, executive director of the Atlanta-based League of Hope, which funded and organized the trip. The charity has worked in Haiti for the past 18 months.

Agricultural development is critical for the country now, says Huff, who was in Haiti on the day of the earthquake.

“UGA has a lot of expertise in agricultural fields, but they also have many contacts in industry in Georgia and across the United States,” Huff says. “The mission (of the team) is to see how we might employ those resources to help Haiti recover from the earthquake.”

Decades of poor environmental practices and policy decisions—and some tough breaks from Mother Nature—have left Haiti one of the poorest, least-developed countries in the world. The land of lush tropical growth and abundant agriculture is now barren, and mountains are eroded. Sparse, rocky roads—some like parched riverbeds in the dry season—connect cities, where many live in cobbled-together shacks.

Statistics vary, but most Haitians live on less than $2 a day. One in five children suffers severe malnutrition and many more don’t get the proper nourishment for healthy immune systems. Disease is widespread. Life expectancy is just over 50 years. Unemployment is as high as 80 percent in some areas. Haitian farmers produce only half of the food needed in the country each year.

“The people need a hand up instead of hand outs,” says Suchet Loois, a Haitian native and retired Tuskegee University professor. Loois now works in Los Palis with the Catholic-based Haiti Humanitarian Fund, helping local farmers with sustainable small-scale vegetable production and Haitian women with a small-business credit program.

“More than anything, we need education and without it lives will never improve here,” Loois says, as a dozen local farmers gather to hear him talk about the use of drip irrigation for vegetables.

CAES has a Peanut Collaborative Research Support Program on the country’s northern coast. Peanut experts help farmers in that region grow safer, better peanuts. They are partners with Meds and Foods for Kids, a nonprofit organization based in the U.S. that makes a peanut-based, ready-to-eat food called Medika Mamba to combat malnutrition in children.

During the week-long trip, the team traveled to the central plateau, where the country has the highest potential for increased agriculture. Farms there include one managed by Zanmi Agrikol, the agricultural arm of the Boston-based Partners in Health, which has provided extensive medical care for Haitians for 25 years.

Recently, Zanmi Agrikol started producing a peanut-based therapeutic food to distribute through nine Partners in Health clinics across the country. The program uses Haitian-trained agronomists to grow the food. They want to use this program to teach local farmers modernized farming techniques. But they need help to do it.

The researchers believe they can help the Haitians expand farming to the central plain with proper fertilization, crop varieties and rotation, conservation, disease and insect control, and good postharvest handling—practices that aren’t well understood or used there now.

“People want that connection with the earth. You feel really good about providing something that’s life sustaining, which you can produce yourself,” Wells says. “And Haitian farmers want to be able to do that. So, if we can help provide the expertise that allows them to do that, I think that’s really a great thing.”

—Brad Haire is a news editor with UGA’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.